AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
America has had its first black baseball player, its first black astronaut, its first black president. But after the first, the world is still full of onlys. Sometimes the onliness is existential, like being the only black student in a private school. Sometimes it's incidental - the only black woman in an hour-long yoga class. And those are the stories that preoccupy author Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
NAFISSA THOMPSON-SPIRES: Because you are sort of a representative of what people see as black by virtue of them not having had much exposure to it. There are all these additional pressures on top of the sort of standard pressures of being black in a white world.
CORNISH: Nafissa Thompson-Spires' debut short story collection is called "Heads Of The Colored People." And it's full of characters coping with those pressures, characters like Randolph, a black professor at a small college. He's exhausted from what he calls performing his status as an anti-stereotype as he tries to negotiate terms with a new office mate.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: He's unsure all the time. And there's a way that his lack of assurance is very much related to his black identity and his status as a mouthpiece all of the time, having to be a representative in this space.
CORNISH: Meaning he's always policing himself, right? He's like, I can't get too angry 'cause then I'll be the angry black guy, but I'm kind of angry right now (laughter)...
CORNISH: ...And I don't know how to process that.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: Right. So his friend Reggie talks about how the anger has to come out in some kind of way. And for Randolph it comes out in these really passive-aggressive antics with his office mate. But for Reggie, he mentions it comes out through nosebleeds all the time.
CORNISH: Another series of stories follows a woman named Fatima. When we meet her, she's a new student at a private elementary school. She and another girl named Christinia are bullying each other. And the story, "Belles Lettres," is told in letters between their mothers, which start out polite. And then...
THOMPSON-SPIRES: They escalate pretty intensely from accusations of killing rodents to paternity questions. It's basically two very highly educated black women playing the dozens in this kind of bougie form of the letter. That story actually came from sadly something slightly autobiographical. My mother sent me what she called a care packet that had a bunch of crap from my childhood in it. And there was a letter from my childhood bully's mother in there talking about what a terrible child I was, and that it was my fault and not her daughter's fault.
CORNISH: Yikes. So when you read this, were you like, oh, God, I remember these days?
THOMPSON-SPIRES: Oh, yes, I was - I called my mom immediately like, why did you send this to me? This is a terrible letter. But with some distance I thought, you know, this could really be funny. So I think that writing the story was somewhat cathartic. But definitely it doesn't feel good to see a grown woman saying that you have no social skills, which is basically what this mother was accusing me of.
CORNISH: What's bittersweet about this story is that these two young girls are the only black girls in their class, and they don't like each other.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: Right. What Christinia is dealing with, she's responding to Fatima coming into a school where she's been the only black girl, and now there are two of them, feeling some sense of competition with this other black girl. And so there's something beyond the hostility that's actually sad underneath it all.
CORNISH: What do you think that is?
THOMPSON-SPIRES: I do think it's self-hatred. I do think it's being unable to kind of detach your identity from the white gaze or defining yourself in relation to whiteness. And so she's now defining herself in relation to whiteness and against this other black girl. And it's too many things for a third-grader to deal with or to even kind of articulate.
CORNISH: This thing that these young girls have experienced with each other as children, it kind of carries over into their adulthood with one of them in particular when she finds herself in a similar situation, that she was the only one and now suddenly she's not the only one. And it made me think about the idea of, like, there's some privilege in being an individual instead of always having to feel like you're part of a group and a collective.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: There is some privilege in that. There's a sense that sometimes you can even blend in to the point where people forget that you are black. But then I think that also has a very dark side, which is that white friends or friends who are not of color find themselves saying things about black people and forgetting that we're black, too, and saying things like, you know, well, you're not like the other ones or...
CORNISH: Or the you're not black-black.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: Exactly. You're not regular black. You know, you're like this other kind of black.
CORNISH: There was also a term for that kind of blending in that people used to say which was incognegro. Have you ever heard that? If there's - like, another person of color comes in the room, and there's a kind of person who will just, like, hope they don't notice each other.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: I've experienced that in a very negative sense. So it's sort of like if you grew up in Southern California, people don't tend to do the nod, the acknowledgement of other black people. But when I moved to the South, it was very important, it seemed like, for black people to be acknowledged by me and to acknowledge me.
CORNISH: 'Cause you'll hear about it if you don't.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: Oh, yes, you will hear about it. And you will be called uppity, bougie, all kinds of things. And I get it now. Having grown up really isolated from other black kids, I've come to really appreciate just the visibility of other black people. Seeing a black person across the road for me makes me very happy sometimes. And I will do the nod. But that's not the way that I grew up.
CORNISH: In the end, do you feel like you have written the book you would have wanted to have read when you were the only one? If you had read stories like the ones you've written at that age, would you have felt less alone?
THOMPSON-SPIRES: I do think I would have felt less alone. I read a lot of humor. I read a lot of great literary fiction and satire, which is the kind of fiction that I like the most. But I never saw myself reflected in any of those stories. I never saw black characters who were like me dealing with being the only one. I didn't even see a lot of black nerds, which in a lot of ways is what this collection is about - just black people who are into cosplay and into all kinds of stereotypically dorky things. And I wrote the stories I wish I could have been reading and seeing.
CORNISH: Well, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, thank you so much for speaking with us.
THOMPSON-SPIRES: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
CORNISH: And her debut story collection is called "Heads Of The Colored People."
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